Anatomy of a Name Brand

Jean-Marie Clarke

Harmenszoon van Rijn
became Rembrandt in 1633, after a year of trying out different signatures.  In 1632, having left his native Leiden, he established himself in Amsterdam, where he painted the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.  In that year alone he used three signatures, changing twice: from the monogram RHL to RHL-van Rijn, and from that to Rembrant.  In 1633, he added a "d"to create the Rembrandt we  know so well.  The progression was from an impersonal, "anonymous" set of initials to literally making a name for himself.  This was a revolution of sorts, for it meant a shift from a sign to a real signature with a name written in full.

Rembrandt signature 1
         The close attention that Rembrandt paid to the design of his signature—the graphic sign of his identity—resumed on another level his intensive work on his own likeness in the long series of etched and painted Self-portraits of 1629-31.  His attention went not only to the overall design of the signature, but also to the details of the individual letters, for which he used different styles of script (he usually distinguished between the R of his first name, and the R of "Rijn", if only in size).

Rembrandt signature 2

: Signature on an etching  from
ca. 1632 (The Raising of Lazarus, B 73)

          The very original shape he gave to his initial Rstarting in 1629 must have had a significance for him because it stayed constant throughout his llife.  In fact, until 1632, this R was all that could be seen of his first name.  It is circular and usually done in one stroke.  Often, when he used a fine brush, quill, or engraving needle, he also drew a tiny concentric loop that permitted him to go into the end-stroke in a single gesture (see above).  Not a few people have interpreted the shape of Rembrandt's R as referring to that of a painter's palette; a possibility that is rather difficult to rule out.

         This self-consciously aesthetic R  could be seen to recapitulate one of Rembrandt's compositional formulas, since he liked to give his works a concentrated, flowing and, above all, unified appearance.  The tiny concentric loop marks a special focus or "knot" of attention, a pattern that can be seen in many of Rembrandt's early works and in the 1630s.

JMC Graffiti Action 2006

Above: Graffiti Action, 2006
(Document never published)

R pictograph 1

R pictograph 2

Above: Derivation of the letter R (the first four signs mean "head"), and a contemporary publisher's logo.

          This comparison of a letter of the alphabet with a pictorial scheme may seem far-fetched only if you forget that a letter is a visual pattern and that nearly all writing systems were developed from a form of pictography (picture writing).  Learning how to write means first of all learning how to draw, as any calligrapher will tell you.  Analogies between writing and painting (or drawing) were current in the 17th-century Netherlands: the word Teyckenconst meant both drawing and writing.  Many old and modern masters played visual games with their signatures and names, and such games are standard practice among today's graphic and graffiti artists.

          It was not a matter of Rembrandt's  "secretly" reproducing the shape of this "R", but rather of applying the visual idea of a contained interior space (or a tightly-knit group), a focus of attention (a center), and an axis marking the lower-righthand corner of the composition.  This corner has a strong visual dynamic because of our habit of "reading" from left to right: it has even become the traditional place for the artists' signature.  Rembrandt's paintings and etchings are usually replete with allusions to past art and the memory of his other works.  A picture like the so-called Philosopher below is a matrix of visual associations.  Since reading text and looking at pictures both involve Vision, neurocognitive research may give us the key to how we see and give meaning to what we see (and sense).

Philosopher in meditation + R

Philosophe en méditation (prob. Tobit and Anna in an Interior), 1632, Musée du Louvre

Below: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (presumed original form before addition of a figure at the far left),
1632, Mauritshuis Museum, Den Haag
Rembrandt Tulp +R
       The illustrations above speak for themselves: concentric compositions, straight lines arranged into radial patterns by way of curved lines in the architecture, center or focus marked by the small loop in the "R".  In both paintings, writing is depicted in the form of books and posters on the wall (not visible in the first illustration above), as well as on a sheet of paper with the names of the sitters in the Anatomy Lesson.  
       A further discovery of mine was that the navel of the dissected corpse is shaped like an R, such as the one he used for his patronymic in 1632 (below, right; see entries 9 and 51 of
The Rembrant Search Party on this site).

navel Dr. Tulp
Copyright Jean-Marie Clarke
All Rights Reserved 2006